Mike Leach is more than 1,200 miles away from Big 12 country now, but his fingerprints are still all over the conference. His influence on the way Big 12 offenses move the ball is more pervasive than ever in 2015.
The Big 12 has become an Air Raid conference.
The wild ideas Leach first brought to the conference more than 15 years ago are now the norm. This season, seven Big 12 teams will operate versions or variations of the Air Raid attack. The ties run deep these days, too: Coaches who’ve worked or played for Leach control half of the league’s offenses.
Leach, now entering his fourth year at Washington State, doesn’t do any chest-thumping when asked about today’s Big 12. He doesn’t seek credit. He’s simply pleased to see his pupils and concepts are thriving.
“It’s exciting. I’m not stunned. But it’s exciting,” Leach said. “I think everybody is looking for an efficient way to compete offensively. I think it’s a real efficient way to do it.”
Oklahoma and Kansas were the latest to get in on the Air Raid action this offseason. One of Leach’s former assistants (Lincoln Riley) now runs the Sooners’ offense. The new offensive coordinator at Kansas (Rob Likens) just spent five years at Cal learning from one of Leach’s top protégés.
They join a league that already featured ex-Leach assistants Art Briles and Dana Holgorsen. TCU’s prolific Air Raid is led by a former Leach quarterback (Sonny Cumbie) and a longtime friend who’d studied Leach’s system since the 1990s (Doug Meacham). Oklahoma State still leans on Air Raid ideas Holgorsen and others brought to Stillwater.
And, of course, Leach’s first quarterback at Tech is trying to revive the Red Raiders.
“It’s crazy to watch the impact he’s had,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I think a lot of us have taken the base of his offense and really gone different directions with it.”
The Big 12’s increasing embrace of that offense traces back, really, to Leach’s first year at Texas Tech. In 2000, he managed to assemble a veritable superstaff of rising offensive wizards. Briles coached the running backs. Holgorsen and future Cal head coach Sonny Dykes were in charge of the receivers. The O-line coach back then, Robert Anae, is now BYU’s offensive coordinator.
“They’re all pretty sharp guys,” Leach said. “You know, they’re not yellers and hand-clappers.”
Kingsbury grins while he thinks back to 2000 and how fired up he was by Leach’s outside-the-box ideas and overwhelming self-assurance.
“He would tell you over and over: ‘If you run it the way it’s supposed to be run, you could tell ‘em the play but they can’t cover it,’” Kingsbury said. “Everything he did was so far from what you ever saw as a football coach, you know? It all fit together, but it was different than anything any of us had ever been around.”
And now, 15 years and thousands upon thousands of total yards later, the rest of the Big 12 has pretty much caught up. Texas is getting back to spread ball. Iowa State tried more Air Raid looks last year. And Bill Snyder? Well, he says his Kansas State playbook has a little bit of everything. He wonders, too, about the benefits of being the outlier.
“Maybe we reap some advantage that you really only get four to five days to prepare against us,” Snyder said, “as opposed to six, seven, eight weeks.”
Baylor, interestingly enough, doesn’t consider itself a member of the Leach-fueled majority. Briles’ three-year stint at Texas Tech was a marriage of convenience. Leach needed a high school coach to recruit Texas. Briles needed a way into the college ranks. He’d been operating his own wide-open offenses long before he and Leach crossed paths.
“I wouldn’t even classify us as an Air Raid team,” former Baylor OC and new Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said. “I wouldn’t put us in that category at all. We’re unique. We like it that way.”
And Bob Stoops has his own dissenting take: He’d like a little credit for bringing Leach into the Big 12 by making him the Sooners’ OC in 1999. As he proudly put it at Big 12 media days in July: “I made it popular 17 years ago.”
The truth, of course, is Hal Mumme is the true godfather of today’s Air Raid movement. Ideas that began sprouting when Mumme and Leach first teamed up in 1989 are still evolving across college football today.
Seven of the top 13 total offenses in FBS last season ran versions of the Air Raid. So did eight of the nation’s top 12 passing teams. Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia all ended up among those dangerous dozen. But Leach’s Cougars still finished No. 1.
“He’s one of the innovators,” Holgorsen said, “and what he did at Texas Tech has obviously spilled into the rest of the Big 12.”